Freddie Freeman, in his first season with the Dodgers, has been below average. He’s hitting just .223 and owns a mere .597 OPS. He’s striking out 21% of the time, which isn't a lot for most players, but is for him.
But Freddie Freeman, also in his first season with the Dodgers, has been absolutely fantastic. He’s hitting .381, with a 1.118 OPS. He’s striking out only 7% of the time. He’s been one of the greatest hitters in the game.
How can both of those things be possible at the same time? Because we’ve left out one very important qualifier. Bad Fred, the one hitting .223, is what happens when he comes up with the bases empty. With no teammates on ahead of him, he’s been an easy out. He hasn’t been the weakest regular Dodger, but it’s close.
Good Frederick, on the other hand, the one with the .381 average and who cannot be struck out, is what’s happening with Dodgers on base. He’s been better than good. He’s been darn near the best hitter around.
The numbers, broken down this way, are nothing less than stunning.
It’s the biggest gap in baseball. Entering Monday’s games, there have been 181 batters who had at least 75 plate appearances both with bases empty and runners on. Freeman has posted a 522-point difference in OPS (that’s 1.118 with runners on against .597 with bases empty); no other qualifier is even within 40 points of him, with Cleveland’s José Ramírez (1.282 with runners on, .801 with bases empty for a 481-point difference) the next closest.
(Miami’s Jazz Chisholm Jr., who has similar splits, just barely missed our 75-plate-appearance minimum. He might match or top Freeman when he gets there this week.)
It’s not exactly a secret, either.
“Believe me, I know I’m a lot better with guys on base,” Freeman said when asked in late May. “I got four hits yesterday and they were all with runners on base. I got out once and it was with nobody on base.”
Everyone’s a little better with runners on base, of course. Last year, the Majors had a .710 OPS with the bases empty and a .751 OPS with runners on, an expected effect of pitchers having to manage the basepaths as well as the batter’s box – in addition to the simple quality effect of facing pitchers who aren’t getting outs in the first place.
It’s been true for Freeman, too, who through 2021 had a .956 OPS with runners on and an .843 OPS with the bases empty. Forget who’s hitting behind him, because “lineup protection” is generally a myth in that way. This is how you protect a hitter.
But this is something different. This is a massive difference, unlike what he's done before. So: What’s behind this incredible gap for Freeman? Early-season flukishness? Different methods of attack from pitchers? A change in Freeman’s own approach? The answer is: Yes. Yes it is.
With no one on base
Freeman has stepped to the plate 150 times this season with no runners on. In those situations, he’s hit as well as … Nico Hoerner, Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Kevin Kiermaier. It’s not exactly the company you’d expect him to keep.
If you ask him – and we did – it’s because of his approach.
“Sometimes with nobody on base,” Freeman said, “I think, ‘Well, maybe if I hit the ball in the gap...’ Obviously that usually never works, because when I try to do too much, that never works for me.”
Perhaps so. Our metrics can't quite capture the contents of a man’s soul, yet. But they can sure measure plenty of other things. One of those things, for example, is how differently defenses play him when there’s no one on base.
How often does Freeman face a shift?
This is generally true for most lefties, but not quite to this extent. (Major League lefties see a shift 62% of the time with the bases empty, and 50% with runners on.) His rate of being shifted against with the bases empty is also going up, while being shifted against with runners on is not.
So, if Freeman is trying to “do too much,” it might be a little about seeing that a single isn’t as valuable with no one on, and it might also be a little about seeing that the defense is positioned in such a way to take away those singles.
On a completely related note, when he puts the ball in play, he’s finding less success with the bases empty, via BABIP, or batting average with balls in play.
Where does Freeman find his BABIP?
- Bases empty: .276
- Runners on: .391
But it’s not really about ground balls, or pulling the ball more or less, which are relatively similar either way. When he makes contact, the quality of that contact is a bit better with runners on base, yet not massively so.
It’s about the defense he’s seeing … and the fact that he strikes out three times as much. So let’s talk about all that contact.
With runners on
“I think it just helps with guys on base and the shift, because all I’m trying to do is keep the line moving,” he said. “Maybe when there’s nobody on base, I subconsciously try to do a little too much. When Mookie [Betts] starts hitting or Gavin [Lux] in the nine-hole starts hitting, all you want to do is keep the line moving, that’s all I’m trying to do.”
The team’s recent slump aside, it’s an approach that’s been working. He's hitting .386 with Betts on first, and .364 with Betts on second.
But what’s most interesting is just how much contact he’s making, especially when there are runners in scoring position. Freeman has whiffed only three times in 70 RISP plate appearances; the ensuing 4.3% strikeout mark would be the third lowest of the last 10 years, among players with at least that many times up, and Nori Aoki (2015) and Andrelton Simmons (2016) were hardly the power threats Freeman is, anyway.
“With guys on base, I’m really just trying to put the ball in play,” Freeman pointed out, “even if it’s a routine ground ball. Things can go wrong in the infield. That’s just kind of been the process for me through my career, is just trying to reduce strikeouts as much as I possibly can.”
The numbers back that up. One great way to not strike out is to never be in a two-strike count, and Freeman is indeed a bit more aggressive with runners on, apparently trying to just get a ball in play. Toss in the fact that he's making more contact with runners on and swinging earlier in the count, well, it's a big difference:
How often is Freeman in a two-strike count?
- Bases empty: 51%
- Runners on: 37%
Despite the big differences in production, he's making a little better contact with runners on, not massively so. For example: When the bases are empty, he's putting a hard-hit ball in play on 16% of his swings; when there are runners on, it's 19%, which is both “more” and “not all that much more.”
“My approach is always to left-center, shortstop area,” he said. “But maybe with guys on base and the shift, I’m more homed in to just taking the single.”
Freeman, famously, has very little in the way of traditional splits. This year, for example, he’s got a .289 average at home and a .288 mark on the road. He’s got a .288 average against righty pitchers and a .290 average against lefties. He's reliably consistent, more so than most any other hitter in baseball.
Except, of course, when you split it like this. The best way to get Freeman out is to get to him with no one on base. Easier said than done, of course, given that Betts is usually hitting ahead of him. Then again, nothing about facing Freddie Freeman is supposed to be easy.
MLB.com’s Juan Toribio contributed to the reporting of this article.